Research grants: Let’s end this shared madness

Wellcome Trust director Mark Walport argues that fellowship schemes are the way forward

November 12, 2009

Applying for a research grant entails an elaborate folie á deux between applicant and funding agency. The applicant describes in meticulous detail a programme of work, half of which has already been completed and the other half which probably never will be, at least not in the way that is proposed. The more original and important the research question, the more likely it is that this future half will never reach completion, because there is no road map into the unknown.

There are of course exceptions, such as clinical trials, sequencing projects, epidemiological studies and genetic analyses, where it is reasonable to expect that what is proposed will be carried out. The current peer review process reinforces this approach to the funding of science. Referees and panel members are complicit with applicant and funder in judging the work of fiction that characterises many grant applications.

The scientific community is highly critical of this method of awarding grants but is also addicted to it. Many complain that peer review is conservative, fails to support adventurous ideas, is hopeless at supporting multidisciplinary research, and disadvantages young scientists and those who have had career breaks. However, woe betide the funder who tries to change the way in which grants are awarded. So here goes…

There is another way of awarding grants that is popular, established and successful, one which is judged by the quality of scientific output and career progression. This is the award of research fellowships. These are conferred on individual scientists based on the excellence of their track record and the importance of their scientific question. The essence of the peer review of fellowships is an interview, which gives the opportunity for the scientist to present and argue his or her case to a fully engaged group of scientific peer reviewers, chosen because of their own excellence and scientific vision. This is quite different from the average peer review committee working through a huge pile of written applications, among which, in all likelihood, individual members will have focused only on the few on which they will be asked to speak.

A particular strength of fellowship schemes is that they can offer personal support to scientists at an early stage in their scientific careers – for example the Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowships are four-year fellowships awarded to excellent scientists who have completed their PhD within the previous year. During the past few years, the Wellcome Trust has been extending the length and reach of its fellowship schemes to provide fellowships for scientists at all stages of their careers, and endow these with the flexibility and length of tenure to enable them to attack important questions.

So what are we proposing? We will phase out project and programme grants and instead, extend the model of fellowship support to researchers who are salaried by their university or research institute. We will create Wellcome Trust Investigator and Senior Investigator awards. These will be decided by interview, which will focus on the excellence of the applicant, the importance of the question to be addressed and the proposed approach to tackling the problem. The watchword of these awards will be flexibility, in both length and quantum. We expect awards typically to be for five years rather than three. We intend to create a community, though not a “closed order”, of scientists supported by the trust, which will be modelled on and strengthen the relationships that we have with our existing Wellcome fellows. In addition, we will develop a flexible scheme of enhancement awards that will enable Wellcome Trust investigators, and existing and future Wellcome Trust fellows, to augment their support and meet unanticipated needs as the twists and turns of their research unfold.

Will this focus on the individual endanger collaborative and multidisciplinary research, and will it endanger our partnerships with other funders? We will ensure that the answer is no – our system of strategic awards is well established and will be maintained. We have recently funded multidisciplinary awards in medical engineering in partnership with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and in neurodegeneration with the Medical Research Council. We have launched important partnerships with the Department of Health in the UK, with the Department of Biotechnology in India, and with Merck and GlaxoSmithKline in the private sector. We are fully committed to our clinical programmes, our international funding and to supporting the translation of scientific discoveries into health benefits. We look to the scientific community to bring us their best ideas.

There is, however, one aspect of grant making that we will not change – our use of peer review. But peer review must be done well, and that involves engaging the best scientists in the world. Ultimately the quality of grant making depends on attracting first-class applicants and outstanding peer reviewers. We intend to do both.

The challenge to all research funders is to nurture and support the best scientists and enable them to ask the most important questions. But the job of the best research funders is to provide not only money but also catalysis and mentorship to ensure that we can achieve our missions. We will introduce Wellcome Trust Investigator Awards during 2010. Over the next few months we will be discussing this scheme with the scientific community with the aim of developing it to ensure that it meets the aspirations of the best researchers at all career stages.

As Joshua Lederberg wrote in The Scientist in 1991: “Simply put, the best way to administer a creative research environment is to find people of great talent and reasonable ambition – whatever their specific disciplines – and leave them to their own devices.”

Mark Walport is director of the Wellcome Trust

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